Umeå Institute of Design
The tokens are connected to the bank-account and visualize the shared flats financial situation in a simplified way: If there are debts amongst the flatmates, if one tenant is very successful in saving money for the community or if the shared accounts balance is growing or getting smaller.
The jury found this to be a very useful and relevant service given the prevalence of house sharing, the busy nature of our lives and often socially awkward task of settling shared accounts. However there was a lot of discussion about the use of physical tokens, and a consensus that the design would be stronger if a simple ‘in app’ solution was found for this and more time was given to explore the nuances of the app.
Companion is a banking service aligned with the special needs of shared living communities. The service consists of a bank-account, a web- and a mobile application and physical tokens. The bank account can be used to collect monthly contributions, to do regular payments or to save money for shared expenses. The tokens are connected to the bank-account and visualize the shared flats financial situation in a simplified way: If there are debts amongst the flatmates, if one tenant is very successful in saving money for the community or if the shared accounts balance is growing or getting smaller.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you?
The project was conducted by a group of interaction-design students in cooperation with a financial institute. As today banking is characterized as rather cold, distant and unapproachable, the team was required to develop ideas on new banking experiences. The brief asked to explore how a bank can be the mediator of individual or collective financial experiences in the future. The goal was to get an understanding of existing financial behaviors of users and in a second step inspire new behaviors in people, life and society. The students were asked to promote transparency of the way users understand their finances and financial relations to other people. Within the project the team was demanded to consider how tangible interactions influence the perception of banking systems with reference to the increasing digitization of money. For this project, four core dimensions of banking were defined in the brief: "Transformation", "Transparency", "Thoughtfulness" and "Tangibility". Transformation refers to the question what the real value is, a bank is capable to deliver. The notion of transparency aims first to obtain and second to provide a better understanding about financial procedures to the banks clients. Thoughtfulness is strongly tied to the concept of user-centered design. The project focused on exploring real-life scenarios and using them as a matrix to build ideas on. Tangibility played a big role as money nowadays more and more becomes digital and intangible. The team was asked to learn how tangible interfaces and artifacts could provide a more natural banking experience.3. The Intent: What point of view did you bring to the project, and were there additional criteria that you added to the brief?
Having lived in five different shared flats for the last seven years, I experienced a lot of different ways how sharing living expenses can work - or not. In general, it has always been a very sensitive matter that strongly affected relations in a community. As the brief was quite open, I decided to look into the area of shared living expenses. This focus brought up a couple of new important questions. Who are the people who live in a shared flat, and what are their motivations to live together? How do they handle financial issues? What kind of experiences did they have with shared living? I got to know shared-flats as being very dynamic and flexible constructs. Every shared living community has own habits and rules how to handle the issue of sharing expenses. Still, there are common practices like a cash-box or a shared bank account. Sometimes bookkeeping and accounting is way it works. All methods do have advantages but they provoke different questions as well: Is their one responsible person or many? Who is responsible? How to keep track of who paid his or her share? How to handle defaults? How to make the system transparent and trustworthy? A contract to regulate that may be a solution, but it would destroy some of the core aspects of shared-living: flexibility and unbureaucratic processes. Beyond that, shared living communities are often build on trust, friendship or even love - none of that should be affected by financial issues.4. The Process: Describe the rigor that informed your project. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) What stakeholder interests did you consider? (Audience, business, organization, labor, manufacturing, distribution, etc., as applicable)
I started the 8-week process with conducting an online survey to find out how people experience the notion of sharing in a living context in general. As expected, the surveys outcomes confirmed some of my assumptions, still providing some insights i was not aware of before. Based on those outcomes I facilitated a workshop with 12 people who all experienced shared living. I divided them in groups of different sizes and let them act as if they were living together in a shared flat. I faced them with issues, people stated in the survey and asked them to individually reflect on their personal experience with those kinds of issues and continue with finding a solution in the group. Concluding the research phase, I synthesized all results into some main findings. Based on my synthesis I defined three groups of ideas and started ideating. Thinking about expense management, transparency and flat-funding I generated a large diversity of very simple to rather complex ideas. I evaluated all concepts on the aspect of relevance as a physical product. I wanted to come up with a solution, where a physical product makes more sense than having an intangible or purely screen-based product. Adding to that I aimed at creating a product aligned with today's technical feasibility and security standards in banking. Finally I consolidated the most promising ideas and asked my team for some expert-feedback to find and pick the best one. Refining and simplifying that idea I tried to figure out which information should be displayed in which way and how the main interaction patterns would look like. I decided to divide the information to different platforms, depending on the nature and frequency of use as well as the complexity of tasks. After receiving feedback that supported my strive for keeping it as simple as possible, I ended up with a concept that contained a web- and mobile application, combined with physical tokens. I wanted the product to have a simple, yet warm look&feel, as I tried to create an artifact people would want to play with and touch as soon as they see it. My main source of inspiration were contemporary scandinavian and japanese household accessories. To find the appropriate dimensions, I built simple cardboard mock-ups to get a feeling for size and handling of the tokens. Based on the feedback I got from user-testing I decided on one size to aim for during the further prototyping phase. I tested different light-patterns with simple Arduino LED mock-ups to see if I can convey the information I wanted to. After a 2-minute introduction everybody could read the 4 different parameters without a problem. The final experience prototype for final presentation and exhibition had the exact size of the tested paper mock-up to convey an experience as close as possible to the final product.5. The Value: How does your project earn its keep in the world? What is its value? What is its impact? (Social, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, environmental, cultural, gladdening, etc.)
As money is being increasingly digitized, the interactions with it becomes more and more intangible and impersonal. Transactions require not more than a card-swipe, a code or a signature as people demand simple solutions. This makes shopping in supermarkets or online more convenient but leaves many questions unanswered when it comes to financial relationships between people. When living together, there is an inevitable need for a solution to manage financial procedures. Available methods, like cash-box, pen&paper accounting or shared bank accounts may solve monetary issues, but they presuppose trust amongst the members of a community often not providing an appropriate amount of transparency to build it. Trust is the seed for pleasant co-existence and supports the notion of sharing, which is one of the key benefits living together offers. The Companion service provides a solution that makes shared finances more transparent by displaying them in shared space, like the kitchen. Instead of showing the exact amount of debts and balances, the abstract interface on the Companion-Tokens gives an overview on the financial situation. By that, payments are not claimed, but adequate payment performance is visualized and rewarded. The Companions undertake unpopular tasks in a cautious way to support a good social climate. By letting the community decide what goods they want to share, the service stays flexible without patronizing the tenants. Allocating all features to appropriate devices enables the users to handle a complex system in a convenient and natural way.